Chef Mike reveals the secret of making classic boat noodles
Three years ago, I walked into a nondescript restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand, in search of a dish that is virtually unheard of in the U.S.—boat noodles, or guai dtiaw in Thai.
There were no tourists or Westerners in sight, only Thai locals lining the seats along the roughly hewn wooden communal tables that filled every inch of the restaurant’s space. As they finished each bowl of noodles, customers would carefully stack the chipped and cracked brown ceramic bowls to create a personal monument to honor of their culinary triumph over each serving of this iconic dish.
At only 10 baht per bowl (about 42¢ US), it was easy for me to quickly create my own pillar of ceramic bowls as I sampled both the beef and pork versions, along with a variety of noodle options. The rich, slightly thick broth has a stunningly delicious and surprisingly intricate fabric of flavors that weave together to form a dish that rivals Vietnamese pho or Mexican mole in complexity and depth.
Before you grab your keys and head for the nearest Thai restaurant, I have to warn you that Thai boat noodles are not available in Chattanooga. However, all of the ingredients to make your own can be found at your favorite Asian market, such as Asian Food & Gifts in Hixson. The following recipe is long and requires a lot of ingredients, but the preparation is simple and could not be more worthy of the effort.
Note: To assemble boat noodles at service, you’re going to need a noodle basket, at least four serving bowls that can hold up to three cups of finished boat noodles and four additional, soup-sized bowls for assembling ingredients at service.
- 3 lb. boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2” long strips, no more than 1/4” thick
- 1 thumb-sized piece of galangal, thinly sliced
- 3 large stalks lemongrass, trimmed and thinly sliced
- 8 large fresh cilantro roots, lightly smashed
- 3 fresh or frozen pandan leaves, slightly bruised and tied into a knot
- 1-1/2 cups roughly chopped Chinese celery leaves
- 3/4 cup light soy sauce
- 1 tbsp. black soy sauce
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 5 oz. palm sugar
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 tbsp. black peppercorns
- 3 pieces of star anise
- 12 cups water
Place all the broth ingredients into a large stockpot and bring to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to a slow simmer. Simmer for one hour, or until the pork is tender but not falling apart.
Reserve five cups of broth and two cups of stewed pork. The rest can be stored in the refrigerator for up to five days or the freezer for up to six months. Keep the broth and pork covered, on low heat, until time to serve.
- 1/4 cup chili vinegar
- 2 tbsp. fried garlic
- 2 tbsp. Thai chili powder
- 2 tbsp. fried garlic oil
- 1 tbsp. raw pork blood (you can leave this out if you’re skeered)
- 12 oz. boneless pork shoulder, sliced into bite-size strips
- 12 pork balls (no, not testicles...)
- 12 oz. thin rice noodles soaked in lukewarm water about 15 minutes (until they just turn pliable), then drained well
- 3 oz. Chinese water spinach leaves and thin stems, cut into 2” pieces
- 3 oz. bean sprouts (about 2 cups, lightly packed)
- 1/3 cup roughly chopped Chinese celery
- 1/3 cup roughly chopped cilantro (stems and leaves)
How to make it
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. In each of your serving bowls put 1 tbsp. chili vinegar, 1-1/2 tsp. fried garlic oil, 1-1/2 tsp. fried garlic, 1 tsp. chili powder, and 1 tsp. pork blood (optional).
In each of your four additional soup-sized bowls, combine 3 oz. of raw pork shoulder, 3 pork balls, 3 oz. noodles, about 2/3 cup of water spinach, and 1/3 cup bean sprouts. Set remaining ingredients aside.
Making one portion at a time, add one bowl of the noodle/pork mixture to a noodle basket and immerse in the boiling water. Stir the ingredients with a wooden spoon or chopsticks until the pork shoulder is just cooked through, less than two minutes.
Drain well. Add the contents of the basket into a serving bowl, top with about 1/3 cup of the reserved stewed pork, then add 1 cup of broth. Repeat with the remaining three bowls.
Just before eating, add a generous three-finger pinch of the remaining water spinach, sprouts, Chinese celery and cilantro.
Provide guests a condiment station with chili fish sauce, sugar, vinegar-soaked chiles, and chili powder so they can season to taste before eating.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits